March 24, 2014 39 Comments
Disclosure: I was contacted by the marketing arm of the Michelob Ultra Chicago 13.1 Marathon with an invitation to run the race and promote it via Dan’s Marathon. I ran this race in 2009, when Chicago went from having two half marathons to four, and remember it quite fondly. I accepted their generous offer and will be giving away one free registration at the end of this post.
Recently, a friend told me they were thinking of running a half marathon and asked if I thought they should. I said Yes, and will always say Yes, especially if it’s a distance they’ve never run before. I can’t imagine ever discouraging anyone from challenging themselves to achieve what their body has evolved to do with such grace and economy. Of course do it, and do it with dedication, purpose and alacrity.
Because everyone knows that the first race of any distance is special. It marks the maiden journey into the unknown and brings with it a swarm of nerves. Many a runner has reached the starting line with frenzied hands and a jittery body, darting looks left and right, letting out exasperated sighs in anticipation of answering the important questions.
Did I train enough for this? How fast should I start? Are my time goals reasonable? Did I eat enough this morning? Is this weather too cold or just perfect?
It’s a collection of emotions that I remember very fondly of all my first races, but most notably my first half and full marathons. There was no way to guarantee that I’d return to the starting line strong or a broken shell of a once confident runner. But these nerves and even doubts are part of the magic. In fact, I’m very easily drawn to posts titled “My First Marathon” because of that vicarious desire to re-live those restive moments of near panic as the 26.2-mile journey unfolds ahead of a debutant.
Of course, once you cross the finish line, you know you’ve done it. The mystery is solved, questions answered and challenge achieved. Most likely you won’t even think of anything because your thoughts are being drowned out by music and your own barbaric screams. But though training may have felt like forever, the moment of triumph is fleeting. The race is over, you did it, and you don’t get another first chance.
So now we make room for the second race, which I find equally important and just as momentous.
The first race gets all the glitz and glory. The medal earned a larger space on our mantles, the story likely racked up a greater word count and certainly attracted more accolades from our peers at the inevitable post-race bar party. The second race isn’t regaled with the same attention and fondness and is often simplified to our desire to “do it again.”
However, I think there’s much more to it. The second race is the one where most of us have already vanquished our demons of uncertainty. We know how to show up to the start line healthy, fit and hungry for a fast time because we’ve done it already. A few tweaks may have happened along the way and our average run time may have changed slightly, and there’s very little doubt anymore that we’ll finish. But there is a chance that we’ll come up short. Our previous best might kick harder. It might not be our day. That’s the chance we take when we come back.
The second time around, it’s no longer about achievement, it’s about competition.
Competition is what fueled me in that second race. I learned that my body could run 13.1 miles during my first half marathon, but this time I was there to see how fast I could do it. Because the second race is the first I ran against myself. Though there may have been thousands of other racers out there, I only cared about my performance and I was intimately dialed into my efforts.
There’s something remarkable and subtle about besting one’s self. We run with the rabbit of our first run scuttling nearby, an undeniable testament to what we can do. But this is the second race, and it’s no longer about what we did but how much faster we can do it. We are not playing it safe, staying behind our delicate lactate threshold, but instead pushing the envelope. Running faster and harder may push us past our abilities but we won’t know until the race is over. It’s almost as if we long for those daunting feelings of unpredictable outcomes that might not haunt us the second time. If we can’t get our fix of uncertainty one way, we’ll find it elsewhere by raising the stakes.
Therein rests the true appeal and significance of the second race. It not only gives us a chance to test ourselves against what we’ve already achieved, but the way in which we attack that challenge may say a lot about who we are as athletes and people. Do we take the measured, conservative approach and simply add a few seconds to our pace per mile? Or do we bet it all and hope to delay a premature collapse?
Do we rest our hopes on small, incremental change, or audacious, explosive progress?
Much like my running exploits, the 13.1 Marathon series was new in 2009. I was very much a naïf in running shoes at the time, completely unaware of proper form and unlikely to name any famous marathoners, but I was acutely tuned into one number: 1:49:34. My fastest and only half marathon time – the original PR. Weather conditions were near perfect and I held nothing back.
The course started at the South Shore Cultural Center on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chicago’s iconic skyline kept watch on the horizon behind a thick canopy of green. The course would be flat, very fast and quite scenic.
I put up quite a fight through Jackson Park, around the Museum of Science and Industry, and back on the lake path, improving my mark to 1:47:58. But I struggled at the end. Passion and drive were just barely enough to overcome my lack of experience, which I learned as I staggered through the finisher’s chute. A friendly volunteer asked me a few questions about my experience as I strove to break out of the haze of fatigue. I might have answered her questions far too quickly for her hand because Gatorade and rest were calling my name like sirens.
I would have to train for ten more months to beat that time.
Thirty-four half marathons later, I still remember that race very vividly. It was the first time I had triumphed over my own achievement, left the rabbit in the dust and felt the rush of tangible improvement. Since then, I have seen my personal bests improve by as little as six seconds to as much as four minutes. Personal bests aren’t guaranteed – they require a mix of intense training and optimal conditions – but I’ve never felt more ravenous for a challenge than on that second race.
On June 7, I will return to the Chicago 13.1 Marathon to once again attack my PR, which now stands at 1:30:47. I will be giving away complimentary registration courtesy of the 13.1 Marathon series to a random commenter, to be announced on March 31, 2014. To participate:
1. Comment below with thoughts on your most memorable second attempt at a race of any distance and why it was meaningful to you.
2. Include your email or website so I know how to contact you.
3. You may comment more than once as long as it furthers the discussion.
4. If you want to comment but wouldn’t be able to make the race if you win, please let me know.